The Atlantic

Big Pharma’s Go-To Defense of Soaring Drug Prices Doesn’t Add Up

Just how expensive do prescription drugs need to be to fund innovative research?
Source: Rick Bowmer / AP

How is it that pharmaceutical companies can charge patients $100,000, $200,000, or even $500,000 a year for drugs—many of which are not even curative?

Abiraterone, for instance, is a drug used to treat metastatic prostate cancer. The Food and Drug Administration initially approved it in 2011 to treat patients who failed to respond to previous chemotherapy. It does not cure anyone. The research suggests that in previously treated patients with metastatic prostate cancer, the drug extends life on average by four months. (Last year, the FDA approved giving abiraterone to men with prostate cancer who had not received previous treatment.) At its lowest price, it costs about $10,000 a month.

Abiraterone is manufactured under the brand name Zytiga by Johnson & Johnson. To justify the price, the company pointed me to its “2017 Janssen U.S. Transparency Report,” which states: “We have an obligation to ensure that the sale of our medicines provides us with the resources necessary to invest in future research and development.” In other words, the prices are necessary to fund expensive research projects to generate new drugs.

This explanation is common among industry executives. To many Americans, it can seem plausible and compelling. It’s easy to conjure images of scientific researchers in their protective gear and goggles carefully dropping precious liquids into an array of Erlenmeyer flasks, searching for a new cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. But invoking high research costs to justify

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic4 min readTech
Elon Musk’s Next Wild Promise
If someone is going to revolutionize what it means to be human, do we want it to be a tech titan?
The Atlantic3 min readTech
What Amazon Thinks You’re Worth
Shoppers were offered a $10 credit in exchange for handing over their browser data. It’s an investment that pays dividends for Amazon.
The Atlantic2 min readSociety
He Killed an Unarmed Man, Then Claimed Disability
City leaders in Mesa, Arizona, operate a municipality where the interests of police officers are valued more highly than ordinary citizens, including those the police have wronged. Two years ago, I wrote about Daniel Shaver, an unarmed 26-year-old